Designing Better Empathy

Two hands reaching towards each other
Photograph by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

By Max Yaghchi, Writer

Can empathy be learned?

This question is central to the Innovation Hub’s methods. We use design thinking to take “a human-centred approach to solving problems,” and since the rise of empathic design in the late 1990s, designing for humans first has meant empathy.1

The reasoning is simple. By forming an empathic connection with the people for whom we design, we better understand their unmet needs. Going even further, if we see them as equal contributors, we get their buy-in early on.

But if design thinking is to be a universally effective tool, it must be learnable. And if empathy is its defining trait, can we learn that as well?

Empathy at the Innovation Hub

To investigate how Innovation Hub members learn empathy, I spoke with two student leaders, Gabriele Simmons (Senior Project Assistant) and Sujaya Devi (Design Research Team Lead). Both have studied at UofT as undergraduate and graduate students. They said that their own experiences were critical to connecting with their peers.

The Innovation Hub has an advantage here. When empathy is formally taught, curricula emphasize the difference between it and sympathy. Empathy requires personal reflection: the empathizer connects their personal experiences with another person’s journey. Designers working for outside groups may find this challenging. But Innovation Hub members are also members of the campus community, which makes it easier for us to incorporate empathy into our work.

Indeed, Gabriele said that empathy is “explicitly woven into all that we do.” Her diverse campus roles helped her “put [herself] into another’s shoes.” (In addition to being a student and an Innovation Hub member, she has also worked as a staff member at UofT.)

But she added that it is “essential to learn some of the foundations/theory behind empathy.” By “nam[ing] […] what we do,” we gain self-awareness and find areas for improvement.

Formal education alone doesn’t suffice; real practice is required as well. As Sujaya said, in the real world, “we won’t be given an assignment breakdown for everything we do.” To improve our empathy, we need “examples and models to follow.”

Empathy in Other Fields

Design is not the only field that thinks about empathy. Medical curricula try to teach it too: healthcare students are assessed on how well they show empathy for simulated patients. In real settings, empathy strengthens communications and improves patient satisfaction.2

But how is it taught?

One study trained oncology nurses in three weeks of theory, experiential exchanges, and role playing.3 In both clinical and simulated interviews, the trained nurses used more emotional words compared to their untrained peers.

Another study put physicians through six hours of classroom instruction and workshops, directed by theatre professors.4 In subsequent patient interactions, the trained physicians outperformed the control group in empathetic communication, relating to the listener, nonverbal communication, respect for dignity, and overall impression.

Towards Better Empathy

These results from other fields show that training works. Such structured strategies might be used in design as well.

But teaching isn’t everything; other barriers affect our ability to practise empathy. For example, emotional exhaustion can cause burnout and thus decreased empathy.5 Part of caring for others is looking after ourselves and our teams first.

Luckily, with a combination of training, modelling, and support, better empathy can be learned.


  1. Battarbee, K., Suri, J., & Howard, S. (2015). Empathy on the edge: Scaling and sustaining a human-centred approach to innovationRotman Management Magazine.
  2. Bayne, H., Neukrug, E., Hays, D., & Britton, B. (2013). A comprehensive model for optimizing empathy in person-centered carePatient Education and Counseling93(2), 209–215.
  3. Razavi, D., Delvaux, N., Marchal, S., Durieux, J.-F., Farvacques, C., Dubus, L., & Hogenraad, R. (2002). Does training increase the use of more emotionally laden words by nurses when talking with cancer patients? A randomised study. British Journal of Cancer87(1), 1–7.
  4. Dow, A., Leong, D., Anderson, A., Wenzel, R. & VCU Theater-Medicine Team. (2007). Using theater to teach clinical empathy: A pilot study. Journal of General Internal Medicine22(8), 1114–1118.
  5. Elayyan, M., Rankin, J., & Chaarani, M. (2018). Factors affecting empathetic patient care behaviour among medical doctors and nurses: an integrative literature review. [pdf link] Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal24(03), 311–318.

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